Memories of Lincoln Center, Fifty Years On

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 - 01:51 PM

To me, the sixteen acres of Lincoln Center is sacred ground. Once pilloried as a supermarket of culture or a sure-to-fail urban development scheme, it has defied the negativity and pessimism to become a vibrant if at times unwieldy destination that people argue about because they passionately want it to be the best of its kind. I was born the same year (1956) the concept of the center came about and grew up two blocks away as the complex was being born.

Central to the challenge of making viable this place, whose groundbreaking in May 1959 included President Eisenhower and Leontyne Price, was to house iconic New York arts companies in new theaters that would be elegant but accessible, august yet inclusive. All told, I think it has done a great job in achieving its aims in the half-century since its first building opened. 

As you stand on the central plaza (now called the Josie Robertson Plaza) of the complex and look in all directions, you see imposing buildings but might not know some of their unusual stories, what they were intended for and what they have become. The more you look, the more you see. This article is the first in an occasional series about Lincoln Center then and now. I look forward to reader memories and comments about the past and present of this landmark institution whose first theater, then called Philharmonic Hall, opened in 1962.

Many people objected to the creation of Lincoln Center because it seemed to be pushing out working-class people to build a fancy arts venue for the rich. If you have seen the film version of West Side Story, with its chain fences and tenements, that is the land where Lincoln Center now stands. The surrounding area was rough and tumble, and quite diverse. I was neither a Jet nor a Shark, just a neighborhood kid with limited means but with the big dreams typical of many New Yorkers. 

On the west side of Amsterdam Avenue, just opposite the blocks zoned for Lincoln Center, stood small reddish brown buildings—still there today—that were public housing projects built for low-income people. They are familiar in design to all New Yorkers as they exist in all five boroughs. My grandmother lived in identical buildings in Queens. Those near Lincoln Center were inhabited mostly by—as they were known then—"Negroes" and "Latins." I had many elementary school friends there and all of them referred, with no irony, to the rising marble temples of Lincoln Center as "the white projects" as if the places you resided in reflected the color of your skin.

Cultural Acropolis

Aware that there was strong, though sometimes misguided, opposition to this new complex, its planners had to make practical and visual gestures to indicate that Lincoln Center was meant for everyone. The three main buildings on the central plaza have glass fronts that were intended to suggest the transparency and accessibility of the buildings and the companies that inhabit them. A brilliant stroke was to create terraces on the three buildings (originally called Philharmonic Hall, the New York State Theater and the Metropolitan Opera House) facing the Plaza so that audience members could step out at intermissions to take in the view of the other halls, illuminated and animated, the playful cascades of the central fountain and the moon rising over Central Park. Now these terraces are the refuge of smokers, so that other audience members seldom venture out of doors.

The Plaza is really an Italian piazza where people gather to talk, eat ice cream and stroll. You don’t have to attend a performance to go there. While some people say it shows the inspiration of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, I see it as akin to Rome’s Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill) for the way the buildings are positioned and the intricate design of the pavement around a central point—a statue of of Marcus Aurelius in Rome and the fountain in New York. The fact that the buildings are made of the same travertine marble used in the Eternal City lends further commonality between the two great urban spaces. Indeed, Lincoln Center became a cultural Acropolis, raised above Columbus Avenue and Broadway, inviting and ennobling but also much quieter acoustically and visually making it a desirable place for reflection.

My mother worked for Lincoln Center Incorporated in the 1960s at a time when there were no offices on the campus but simply a small space above the long-gone Cinema Studio on Broadway and 66th Street. The office canteen was John’s Coffee Shop just downstairs. Later, they moved to larger digs in the American Bible Society building a few blocks south. They would not occupy Lincoln Center until construction of the major theaters was completed.

The first building opened in 1962 and was called Philharmonic Hall (known, since 1976, as Avery Fisher Hall in honor of the man who gave money to do a significant acoustical overhaul of the theater). It became the home of the New York Philharmonic, as well as the venue for the Mostly Mozart Festival which served, early on, as an air-conditioned refuge from beastly summer heat at a time when many people did not have AC at home. For $8 you could cool off and also hear beautiful music. In recent years, programming of the festival has become much more adventurous. Fisher Hall also hosts many guest orchestras and soloists, as well as performances by Opera Orchestra of New York and the annual Richard Tucker Foundation gala.

Philharmonic Hall provided me with a 1960's version of child care and was where I got some of my earliest music education. After school I went there and stayed under the watchful eyes of security guards and box office staff. Leonard Bernstein was the music director of the New York Philharmonic and a Pied Piper of music for kids. A few of us were often allowed to sit in on rehearsals and hear Lenny guide the orchestra deeper into the music. He would swivel in his chair and lecture us about modes, chords, key signatures and what Beethoven or Brahms was thinking about when they wrote their symphonies and concertos. He often complained about the acoustics, as I will discuss in my next article.

The next building to open was the New York State Theater, which was paid for by New York state and given to the city on the occasion of the 1964 World’s Fair. It would house the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera, both arriving from the City Center on 55th Street. These distinguished companies were, in different ways, “of the people.” On the first tier was the lofty and spacious Grand Promenade, which was intended as the official receiving room for city events. With its oversized statues by Elie Nadelman, it was classically proportioned and invitingly modern. 

In 1965 came the Vivian Beaumont Theater on the North Plaza and, beneath it, the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, both intended for plays. Structurally and creatively they had a rough start but went on to present marvelous productions of classic and new plays and musicals, abetted by superbly iconic posters that are works of art. Seeing the African-American actress Diana Sands as Shaw’s Saint Joan very early on remains a touchstone of why I adore live theater. At the same time, the peerless New York Public Library for the Performing Arts opened next door and Lincoln Center became a destination not only to watch performances of the great art forms but also to study them.

The Metropolitan Opera House opened with Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra on September 16, 1966, having left the wonderful Old Met on 39th Street because, gorgeous though the auditorium was, the stage was woefully inadequate for presenting the kind of productions the Met aspired to. The fact that the Old Met was torn down, though, was a tragedy of epic proportions, especially when you see the drab office building of light green bricks that sits in its place. It would have been an excellent venue for many companies including the New York City Opera.

At the end of the 1960s the Juilliard School opened on the north side of 65th Street, moving downtown from near Columbia University. It fulfilled one of Lincoln Center’s foremost goals, to have an active exchange between talented students and the performing arts professionals across the way. I have seen many students in the theaters and library attending performances, doing research, and receiving instruction from master artists. In this way too, Lincoln Center is less of a supermarket and more of a piazza.

On the corner of Broadway and 65th Street, in one corner of the Juilliard building, is Alice Tully Hall, named for the wonderful old-school arts patron who took a great interest in the design of a space with comfortable seats and generous legroom that was intended for chamber music (and gave birth to the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center). The unforgettable gold and black wallpaper in the restrooms that depicted all manner of African wildlife was pure Alice Tully. She told me with a wry smile that she had given up on correcting people who came up to her and said, “Thank you for all you have done for music, Miss Hall.”  

One of the least-appreciated and most compelling aspects of Lincoln Center is its abundant collection of modern paintings and sculptures. The Met has its famous Chagalls but, throughout the complex, are works by Alexander Calder, Jim Dine, Frank Stella and many other contemporary artists. The List Art program at the center has commissioned more than a hundred important works. We will visit some of these in future articles.

The most imposing work of public art is Henry Moore’s reclining figure in the reflecting pool of the North Plaza. When the complex was opened the pool was much bigger and this sculpture fit the space well. Recent renovations have changed the proportion of open space to objects at Lincoln Center and serves as a metaphor for what the complex is now.

This is the first in an occasional series about Lincoln Center in the 50 years since its first performance. The next article will assess some of the recent changes on the campus and focus on the future of Avery Fisher Hall. Please share your Lincoln Center memories -- or concerns -- in the comment section below.

Photos: 1) Proposed site for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 1957 (Bob Serating) 2) David H. Koch Theater 3) Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall, November 26, 1985 (Steve J. Sherman) 4)
Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill autograph the highest steel beam of the new Metropolitan Opera House, January 20, 1964 (Bob Serating) 5) Alice Tully Hall today


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Comments [5]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

We had no Lincoln Center when I studied at Juilliard on Claremont Avenue and 122nd street, the original site for Juilliard, nor did we have anything but '78's and chapel shaped radios with only AM reception. The skyscraper or at least massive structures that now dominate our musical cultural scene we, but what we had were yet to arrive, but we did have the top composers, singers and conductors fleeing from devastated Europe after WWII and teaching at Juilliard. Born and living in Jersey City, NJ I had the distinct advantage of proximity to the Met Opera and the New York City Opera to attend, at minimum cost, two to three times weekly, at standing room, from age 15, performances of a wide rep by major singers whose like simply does not exist today. At age 10 I heard on WNYC a broadcast of the recording of Toscanini's conducting the New York Philharmonic in the Rhine Journey and Funeral Music. This recording was made long, long before his recording with the NBC Symphony. That hearing encouraged me to borrow from our major library in Jersey City, on Jersey Avenue, the piano vocal scores of all the Wagner operas from Der fliegender Hollander to Parsifal and the full orchestra scores of the RING and TRISTAN. I started studying composition, composing, and as an autodidact at that time, singing. Taking at different comfortable octaves, I studied, "sang" all the major male roles, marginalizing the David, Mime, Alberich, Young Sailor, and their peer brothers whose roles did not interest me. MY professional career started at age 17. My study of voice with Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Margarete Matzernauer, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, Mack Harrell, John Brownlee and Karin Branzell, all leading singers at the Met Opera before they retired, prepared me for my rep decisions. Schorr, Kipnis and Singher I saw in performances at the Met long before I got to study with them. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, a Wagnerian heldentenor and an opera composer of "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare." Live performance has a special quality that no matter how sophisticated the recording home entertainment "Theaters" they will never replace the Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center or similar performance sites.

Apr. 29 2012 10:42 PM

Amazing history of Lincoln Center. Wonder what the next 50 years will bring to it. With Rick Santorum at the helm of the Met, we're certain to see many changes.

Apr. 24 2012 02:39 PM
David from Flushing

When one looks back on Lincoln Center of fifty years ago, one also notices design flaws that have haunted the place to this day. The use of travertine exteriors was a terrible mistake in a climate with freeeze/thaw cycles. All those little pores that give the stone its character capture water that is just waiting to split the stone when it freezes. Eventually, all this material will have to be replaced, especially the "fins" on the sides of the opera house.

The plaza itself was a disaster. The ill-proportioned steps leading up to the opera house had to be replaced with a ramp after numerous accidents. The surface of the plaza was constantly breaking up even after a complete replacement to remedy the situation. I note with despair that the Center has yet again repeated the mistake of bad steps at the Columbus Avenue entrance.

Philharmonic Hall has a terrazzo pavement at its entrance that must be covered with rubber mats lest someone should fall on a wet day. The acoustics of the hall are legendary in a bad sense. Remember all those plastic "clouds" in the auditorium?

The New York State Theater was acoustically designed with ballet in mind. It was renovated for opera just in time for the departure of the New York City Opera.

The Metropolitan Opera House was supposed to have a deeper lobby I have read, but the funding ran out. The limited facilities here led to the establishment of a ladies pantomime group. At intermissions, they do an impression of the Great Wall of China across the lobby. The climax of their performance is for the line to shrink to half its length with the same number of persons at the sound of the first warning bell.

Apr. 22 2012 08:26 AM
Marianna from Manhattan

Thank you, Fred, for that vivid description of the '60's version of after school enrichment. Leonard Bernstein impromptu mentoring of your group of neighborhood kids during rehearsal is simply wonderful. I can just imagine how precious a memory that must be to have. Now-a-days we pay dearly for after school enrichment of our children that will never come close to what you got!

My parents watched Lincoln Center rise into view from their apartment on the West Side. My dad loves to tell me about the time the buildings were wrapped in burlap to cure the cement (or something like that.) They said it looked like a giant Christmas Present. Christmas present to some, I suppose. Not so much to others. I, for one, am glad it was done; Christmas not withstanding.

Apr. 18 2012 04:46 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRED PLOTKIN, your blogs are ALWAYS informative, entertaining and comprehensive ! As an alumnus of Juilliard on Claremont Avenue and Broadway at 122nd Street, I have been much elated when they moved to Lincoln Center. Indeed, the site of Lincoln Center was an ethnically and financially different cosmetic. Many would rightly assume it to be heartless to have "public domained" the area, but many have benefitted greatly from all the institutions that have brought NYC a cultural gem of LIVE performnces of world class. Nowadays, there are many who disdain providing finances for the arts. When a country considers its culture as too expensive to support, that country reveals its lack of humanity, conscience, and practicality. Culture gives enthusiasm to development and to reaching higher in expectations and in actual achievement. Cultural activities bring in revenue wherever they prosper.
I am a Wagnerian heldentenor and the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques.
Websites:,, and where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one concert, a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann, in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading from the "Recorded Selections" venue on the home page. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel . The title of the concert is 'BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In, Climb Every Mountain, You'll Never Walk Alone, The Impossible Dream, Granada, Wien, Wien, nur du allein, When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again and 19 other selections.

Apr. 18 2012 01:23 AM

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